Almuth Tebbenhoff (Doctor of Letters)

Oration by Professor Gordon Campbell

Almuth TebbenhoffAlmuth Tebbenhoff is a sculptor who works in steel, clay, and in recent years, marble. She is by origin a native of Fürstenau, in Lower Saxony. It was there that Almuth developed her extraordinary sense of the place of geometry in the landscape. The flat landscape of that part of Germany is marked with the lines of hedges and drainage ditches. There are also imaginary lines: as Almuth's father pointed out, the 52nd degree of longitude ran directly through the family's land. And in the sky one night in 1957, the family watched Sputnik travelling slowly across the night sky. In such experiences lay the origins of the ways in which Almuth's geometrical sculptures, particularly those in steel, appropriate their settings as extensions of their geometry.

Many of Almuth Tebbenhoff's sculptures hang suspended from ceilings or walls (as in our David Wilson Library), and again the origins of this practice may lie in her childhood. During the war the bells of Fürstenau 's St George's Church were removed to be melted down for the war effort, but one bell was hidden in a farmer's field, and raised again when Almuth was very young. Here at the University of Leicester we associate her primarily with another metal shape suspended in the air, one that is as symbolic as the resurrected bell of Fürstenau. Thanks to the vision of our Vice-Chancellor, the focus of our campus is our new library. As one enters the library and looks up, the eye is caught by a welded steel installation called Flying Colours, which was commissioned from Almuth Tebbenhoff in 2008 by the Vice-Chancellor. The vividly-coloured rectangular shapes are crumpled, evoking the discarded sheets of paper, the discarded bright ideas that are essential to the creation of new knowledge. This sculpture is thus the emblematic heart of the Library, and today we honour its creator.

Sculpture has not always been the central expression of Almuth's creative imagination. When she first came to the UK it was to study ceramics at the Sir John Cass School of Art. On graduating, she established a studio in London, and for the next six years worked as a ceramicist, all the while developing her interest in sculptural forms. In this period she also attended drawing classes at the Royal College by invitation of the Scottish sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi.

In 1981 Almuth secured a redundant church hall in Wandsworth and in her studio there began to sculpt, initially in clay and wood. Five years later she enrolled at South Thames College to study metal fabrication. We now think of her sculpture as free-flowing and brightly coloured, like the piece in our library, but at this stage in her artistic development her work was geometrical and monochrome (usually grey). Since the 1990s she has moved towards the idiom with which she is now associated, a style shaped by, among other things, the experience of preparing an installation for Jodrell Bank Science Centre (hence, I assume, the explosive motif in much of her work) and the impact of a series of visits to the Stroganovska School in Moscow, in which sculpture often seems to be informed by industrial engineering. Indeed, in her welding of steel, the sparks that fly are both metallic and creative.

Almuth Tebbenhoff has become a firm friend of this University. Last year she curated our annual Sculpture Exhibition in the University's Botanical Garden in Oadby. This is an exhibition to which Almuth had contributed regularly over the years. She chose the theme 'interesting times', and the sculptors whom she approached responded with extraordinary creativity to this theme. Her juxtaposition of sculptures in radically different styles was striking, but what was more remarkable was that the attention to sightlines and planting meant that a garden that had previously been used as a wonderful setting for sculpture was appropriated into a sculptural motif, one in which the garden became an architectonic form into which sculpture was integrated; once again, landscape became an extension of geometry. Almuth's own sculpture in this exhibition was called Open Pillar, which consists of four vertical steel ribbons that rose into the crown of a nearby tree; the construction of the pillars from angle iron created the sense of a contained space within, and the rising of the pillars implied the possibility of something invisible streaming upwards in the apparently empty space.

This year Almuth has returned to curate the same exhibition, and this time her theme is ‘A Change of Heart’. If you have not seen it, and you have a little time, I join the Vice-Chancellor in urging you to visit the exhibition. If you live in London, next month you will be able to see her steel wall sculptures in the Chelsea Arts Club. Wall sculptures have long been an important aspect of Almuth's work. As she once explained, 'for years the wall was my support system against which I could fantasize about deep space. We can't do things without a support system yet. We can't just spit something into the air and it stays there, because gravity teaches us otherwise. I've been using the wall as an aid to defy gravity because I'd like things to lift, to hover, to fly'. Her sculptures do all of those things, and we are honoured that she has given so much of her creative, gravity-defying energy to this university.

Mr Chancellor, on the authority of the Senate and the Council, I present to you Almuth Tebbenhoff, that you may confer upon her the degree of Doctor of Letters.

Written and delivered by Professor Gordon Campbell on 10 July 2013 at 3pm

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